Vanishing Act

Vanishing Act

Last weekend I went to see the movie Looper, largely because I was interested in hearing Nathan Johnson’s musical score after checking out the following videos:

Combine music constructed of field recordings with anything related to time travel—I am a total sucker for both—and I am there. Resistance is futile.

Well. About three-quarters of the way through the movie, I realized I had gotten so caught up in the story—which is something, considering the movie has very little dialogue—that I hadn’t even registered the music at all. Not one bit! So I immediately told myself I was going to pay attention to the music the rest of time… I think that lasted maybe 15 seconds. Again, I was hooked into the big picture.

Does this mean that the score was lacking in some way? Nope. It means the score is really, really well done. This is what a movie score is supposed to do—blend so seamlessly into the entire picture (so to speak) that you don’t even notice it. It never jumped out into the foreground, even when technically it did (because it was the only sound happening), but rather, it always solidly supported the storyline.

Having missed the music almost completely, I went back and listened to the score alone and, as is often the case with movie scores, some of the pieces stand on their own, and some don’t. But the music holding its own is never the main goal of a score; really the goal is to, well, vanish. To be an invisible cloak that makes the entire experience work. In the case of the Looper score, this kind of vanishing act may have seemed so thorough because the music had very little melodic content and leaned heavily on rhythmic material (about which I, as a former percussionist, have no complaint whatsoever!).

That said, there are scores that do stand out in a movie without detracting from the full experience. A few examples are Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo, Glass’s scores for Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, or Ornette Coleman’s score for Kronenberg’s Naked Lunch. However, I think it is safe to say that the primary focus of those collaborations was still on the entire cinematic landscape, and that both composer and director were able to make room for the other’s creative voice to shine.

There are already plenty of composers out there who make amazing film music, music for video games, and who collaborate with artists in other fields such as dance and visual art. I wish that even more composers would—or would be willing—to take on the challenge of something so contrary to the field of concert music (which is so much about ego: about listening to MY MUSIC and understanding MY UNIQUE VISION) as creating something that is truly about a collaborative, group experience that requires everyone involved to somehow leave space for everyone else. I think this is a bit of what Isaac Schankler was getting at in his wonderful post this week, and in the end, this kind of selfless engagement can make the individual an even better composer when s/he turns back toward meeting specifically personal musical goals.

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One thought on “Vanishing Act

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    “some of the pieces stand on their own, and some don’t” That’s very true most of the times.

    Jerry Goldsmith was very against the release of complete scores on CDs. He was thinking of course in selecting the pieces that “stand on their own”.

    And of course, before the soundtracks albums became the norm, composers used to “save” the best moments of their scores for concert suites (Copland, Bernstein, Prokofiev).

    But there are many approaches from the composers themselves when they write for cinema. I particularly love to hear Bernard Herrmann’s scores uncut, with all those very brief movements. Sometimes they last only 10 seconds!


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